Playing It Safe in Peoria
President Obama hasn’t been subtle in his political symbolism. Need to sell a massive stimulus bill to Congress? Visit some of the most economically depressed places in the country, each representing a different face of the American economy, and occasionally answer questions from the desperately unemployed.
Monday was Elkhart, Ind., an exemplar of the decline of America’s rusty economic past. Elkhart was the RV capital of the world. It now has a double-digit unemployment rate.
Tuesday was Fort Myers, Fla., representing the swathes of the country built up during America’s recent debt-binge. It saw the spectacular Southwestern Florida housing bubble burst a few years ago, wrecking the local economy and, a little later, playing its part in wrecking the country’s.
And today was Peoria, Ill., home of the job-shedding Caterpillar Inc., which produces heavy earth movers and other such equipment. The town, Obama said, is hurting because America is “standing still,” instead of erecting new homes, offices or schools. Presumably a lot more earth will need moving after his stimulus bill passes, which was the point.
But nearly absent from Obama’s remarks was anything about the sector of the economy Peoria really represents. Maybe because it’s the one that some Democrats seem determined to undermine: exports.
Before the global downturn, which creamed demand in the developing world, Cat raked in fat profits selling abroad, even as its domestic business contracted. The company derived 60 percent of its revenue from outside North America in its booming fourth quarter of 2007. Observers wrote about a renaissance of American manufacturing at Caterpillar and other firms oriented towards selling high-value-added goods in foreign countries.
Obama’s latest stop should have served as a vivid warning to policymakers eager to roll back America’s commitment to free trade, of which there are distressingly many in Congress right now, who would dare other countries to raise barriers to Cat’s goods and those of other American firms. Just what Peoria needs right now.
Of course, free traders can only hope Obama meant for the symbolism to be that full. Because he hasn’t done much to clarify his position on free trade, either during the campaign, in which he left himself acres of wiggle room on the matter, or any time since. And, judging by his speech today, Obama isn’t keen to start -- even if it means he only tells perhaps 40 percent of the story.
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